I think that I might be breaking some news with this, but I’ve been so busy in the last couple of days that I haven’t been able to keep up with many blogs, so maybe this has already been reported. But I found an interesting tidbit in my email today from Balenac & Abrams, a dealer in Iowa that I’ve bought hobby boxes from in the past. It’s about an upcoming 2009-2010 Upper Deck basketball product.
As you probably know, I am definitely not a basketball card collector, but I still had a very opinionated reaction to the news that Upper Deck (and Topps) would be losing their basketball card licenses, and an Italian sticker company would be gaining exclusive rights from the NBA to produce basketball cards. So I think it’s a very interesting development that Upper Deck is going forward with at least one unlicensed 2009-2010 basketball card set. It’s called Upper Deck Draft Basketball and here are the details:
Upper Deck is debuting 09/10 UD Draft Basketball. Draft Basketball promises to bring you top rookies from the upcoming NBA entry draft. Collectors will be able to uncover basketball legends and future all-stars and get them the week of the draft! Each box will have four numbered autographed cards with an insert, autograph or parallel card in every pack. Every case will have one multi-signed card. This is a great way to get next year’s stars today!
The release date is June 23, 2009. I assume that the cards will feature the rookies in their college (or in some cases, high school) uniforms. Since college basketball is arguably even more popular than the NBA, I don’t think that many people will complain about this. It’s also interesting that “basketball legends” will be included. It’s likely that the list of legends will include Michael Jordan and others who are signed to exclusive contracts with Upper Deck.
It seems pretty clear that Upper Deck is taking the same route with basketball cards that Donruss-Playoff has taken with baseball cards since losing its license. It’s going to be very interesting to see if this will prompt the NBA to sue Upper Deck just as MLB has sued Donruss. I wouldn’t be surprised if Upper Deck executives are monitoring the MLB-Donruss lawsuit very carefully, and weighing whether it might be better for the company to forgo its MLB and MLBPA licenses in favor of producing more profitable, unlicensed products like Donruss has done.
So what do basketball card collectors think of this development? Are you more likely to collect unlicensed Upper Deck cards of the top 2009-2010 rookies (and legendary retired players) or go with the unproven Panini cards? I know that I’d choose Upper Deck in a heartbeat…
So right after I say that I’m going to hold back on blog posts for a few days, a topic comes up that I just couldn’t stay away from. Such is life…
Anyway, I want to preface this by saying that I could care less about basketball. I rarely watch it, and I’m not even sure that I could name 10 players who are active in the NBA right now. I used to change the channel whenever basketball highlights would come on Sports Center. Now, I just watch the MLB network, so I’m able to avoid basketball entirely, and I love it. I enjoy ignoring both the NBA and college basketball. As you know, I went to Penn State, a school where pretending that basketball doesn’t exist is a popular pastime after football season ends. I’ve never even given the slightest consideration to buying a basketball card.
But it was with sadness today that I learned that the basketball card hobby is dead, or at least it is scheduled to die after the current season ends. As I’m sure you’ve read by now on other blogs, the NBA has decided to cut ties with both Topps and Upper Deck, and grant an exclusive license to produce basketball cards to Panini. Yes, Panini. The same Panini that produced the baseball sticker books in the late 1980s and early 1990s that you thought went out of business 15 years ago. When I read this news on Wax Heaven earlier today, I instinctively checked my calendar to see if it was April Fool’s Day. It wasn’t. And I’m still not entirely convinced that this isn’t the 2009 version of the Kazuo Uzuki gimmick, and that on April 1, NBA and card company executives won’t be laughing that we all fell for the joke.
So we’re talking about Panini. Let’s flash back to the summer of 1988. I was 8 years old, almost 9. I loved Panini stickers, and I’d beg my mom to buy packs of them for me every time we were at the grocery store. Don Mattingly was on the cover of that year’s Panini sticker book, and I remember how excited I would be when I’d fill all of the stickers on each team’s page. I did the same thing in 1989. And then I turned 10, and I lost interest. I decided that collecting stickers was for “little kids” and I only collected real cards from that point on. Years later, I discovered that Panini had stayed in business at least until 1996, because they made a Don Mattingly sticker that year. And since I’m on a lifelong quest to collect everything that can even be remotely construed as a Don Mattingly “card”, I own all of the Don Mattingly Panini stickers that have ever been produced. All along, I just assumed that at some point before the millennium, Panini had completely closed down and gone out of business. And then I read today’s news…
It might seem like an exaggeration to say that the basketball card hobby is dead, but I don’t think so. I might not be a basketball card collector, but I’ve met plenty of people who are. I feel really, really bad for them. I imagine how I would feel if it had been MLB who signed this deal with Panini instead of the NBA. Just the thought of it makes me almost nauseous. If MLB ever does something like this, I can guarantee you that it would be the end of my days as a collector. Sure, I might occasionally try to add cards to my graded vintage card collection, but I would never even look at a new pack of cards again. The baseball card hobby would be destroyed, just like the basketball card hobby is being destroyed now.
Sure, Topps and Upper Deck have a lot of faults and imperfections. It’s easy for collectors to find things about their products that they don’t like. These are the companies that have given us products like Topps Co-Signers and Upper Deck X. Topps produced the manufactured letter patches with the sticker autographs for football. Upper Deck thinks that we want to pull autographed cards of bass players from long-forgotten 1980s hair bands in packs of Spectrum. Heck, just last week we devoted an entire Blog Bat Around to all of our ideas about how to improve the card companies’ products.
But for all of their faults, Topps, Upper Deck, and Donruss-Playoff too, are all legitimate and well-respected card companies. We like just as many things as we dislike about them. Topps Heritage is a brilliantly produced set, Upper Deck’s photography for their flagship set is stunning, and nobody can put value into a high-end product like Donruss. I could write pages about all of the great things about these companies. If they weren’t producing any sets that we liked, we wouldn’t be collecting. I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that Topps, Upper Deck, and Donruss-Playoff define what the hobby is. They produce cards that collectors want to collect and own. They all have unique brands, some that we like and some that we dislike, but collectors have a certain comfort level with these companies. And when we see some of the utter crap that companies on the fringe, like Tristar and Razor, have been producing, it only reinforces our comfort with the Big Three. I’m not saying that a new company will never come along that can compete with them, but it’s going to have to be a company that really has its proverbial shit together, and is capable of producing high quality card products – a company like Upper Deck in 1989, as opposed to Razor in 2008.
Could Panini be that company? Why would anyone think so? This is a company that produces stickers, and from what I’ve learned today, they apparently make low quality soccer cards in Europe. They currently have no presence in the United States. I’ll grant you that yes, it is hypothetically possible that there are people working for Panini that have great ideas for producing basketball cards. It’s possible that they could put out some really nice sets that collectors will love. But it’s not likely. And basketball card collectors will suffer because of it. If the NBA wanted to give Panini a license in addition to Topps, Upper Deck, or both, then I’d be all for it. But to put all of the NBA’s eggs in the Panini basket is just an incredibly dumb move.
Think about it; between now and the end of the 2012-13 season, collectors won’t have any alternative to Panini if they want to collect a licensed NBA basketball card product. When Panini produces worthless low quality crap, which is what their past history strongly indicates that they will do, what’s going to happen? Nobody is going to buy it. The basketball card market is already weaker than the baseball card and football card markets. Now it’s going to be completely killed. Another point to make is that a huge segment of the current basketball card collector base is high-end collectors. Products like Exquisite do really well in basketball. Even if Panini is able to pull off making half-way decent base cards, how are they possibly going to be able to match Upper Deck’s high end products? That is simply an impossibility.
You can say that it doesn’t really matter to the NBA, that a low percentage of its fans were collectors anyway. And that might be true. But why would the NBA ruin a hobby that even a small percentage of its fans love? Why wouldn’t they do all that they could to help that hobby thrive, to entice more people into the card collecting hobby, so that more cards could be sold, and the NBA could make even more money from its licensing? Why wouldn’t they want to turn collectors into more passionate fans when they pull a great LeBron James card from a pack of Upper Deck? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
This is very depressing news for the entire sports card hobby. Let’s all hope, cross our fingers, and pray if you’re a religious type, that the NFL, NHL, and most of all, MLB will not even consider screwing collectors, like the NBA did today, by rejecting legitimate card companies in favor of a sub-standard sticker company, or even worse, a company named after a toiletry item that makes poker cards…